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Everything that could go wrong on a chessboard did go wrong for Garry Kasparov, who was a shadow of himself as he scored just 0.5 points out of 9 on the first day of blitz in Zagreb. The 13th World Champion got crushed three times in a row in his beloved Najdorf and resigned in 7 moves against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, as each round seemed to bring a new humiliation. Elsewhere the race remained tight, with Ian Nepomniachtchi losing the sole lead only to regain it in the final round of the day, while MVL top scored in blitz to move within half a point.
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All eyes were on Garry Kasparov on Day 1 of the Croatia Grand Chess Tour blitz in Zagreb. It’s always a thrill to see arguably the greatest chess player of all time back at the chessboard, although cold logic suggested he could be in for a rough ride.
It’s 16 years since Garry retired after Linares 2005, and this was the first time since 2017 that he needed to recall opening preparation rather than play Chess960. He was also coming into the event after the remaining players had warmed up with three days of rapid chess. They might have been more tired, but we had the recent example of 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik scoring five losses and just one win in Paris on the first day of blitz.
Still, this was Garry Kasparov, there was no question he would take the event seriously, and surely there would be some moments to cheer? Alas, what we got on the first day of blitz was the kind of nightmare Garry is unaccustomed to.
It all began in Round 1, when 58-year-old Garry took on the youngest player in the field, 22-year-old Jorden van Foreest. Garry picked the Najdorf, his old weapon of choice, Jorden went for the deep theory of 6.Bg5, and soon the young Dutchman had a promising position and an almost 2-minute lead on the clock. The way he finished things off was beautiful.
24.Rg5! took advantage of 24…fxg5 being impossible due to 25.Qxf7 checkmate, while after 24…Qd4 25.Bxh5! Garry resigned.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Jorden, who had previously been winless in the event, was the only player to have a comparably bad day to Garry — he went on to lose five of the next six games and only got another win from a dead lost position against Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the last round of the day. Still, it was a day to remember.
A heavy loss with Black is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone (White won four games in Round 1), and Kasparov’s solid draw with the white pieces against Alexander Grischuk in Round 2 suggested he’d be able to brush it off. That would turn out, however, to be the highpoint of Garry’s day.
In Round 3 it was again the Najdorf, again 6.Bg5, and again a victory for a player over 30 years younger than Garry who never thought he’d get the chance to play, never mind beat, the legend.
For Round 4 the age difference had almost gone as Garry took on the 51-year-old 15th World Champion, but Vishy Anand had also got the memo about 6.Bg5 in the Najdorf. Garry survived the opening, but was hugely down on the clock and could have been put to the sword if Vishy had sacrificed on d6 earlier. Instead 30.Rxd6 proved sufficient, since Garry lost on time in what was in any case a very unpleasant position.
It was unfortunate that Garry had been drawn to have three Blacks in four games, but to lose them all in an opening he used to play better than anyone in the world was striking. As Magnus Carlsen’s head coach Peter Heine Nielsen commented:
Ian Nepomniachtchi would later point to Garry’s sharp approach to the opening as a mistake.
I guess it’s very simple, because Garry used to always have a big advantage in the opening part, out-preparing opponents, and this was one of his main strengths in his career, especially the last years, but now he’s trying to go for some principled lines, and actually everyone spends hours and hours, dozens of hours analysing some sharp lines, and he constantly runs into some trouble, so I guess once he’s trying to compete in the opening it would be tricky.
It would go no better with the white pieces, with Anton Korobov the next to beat Kasparov, in a 26-move attacking game where if you weren’t told anything about the day you might have assumed Garry was the player with Black.
Again and again, you thought Garry had hit rock bottom, but then there was another blow. In Round 6 he was finally spared another Najdorf clash by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov opening 1.d4, but this time Garry was essentially lost in 5 moves of a Queen’s Gambit Accepted after playing 5…Nf6? (5…Bb4+!)
6.Qb3! was beginner’s chess, targeting the f7-square, but it turns out there’s no good defence. After 6…Qe7 7.0-0! Garry simply resigned.
Although in the chess24 database Black in fact won three of the seven games to reach this position, the resignation wasn’t premature against a player of Mamedyarov’s calibre. Black is horribly undeveloped, while White is ready to put a rook on the e-file or hit the f7-pawn again with Ng5. 7…h6 8.exd4! would be a disaster. The computer suggests the pain of 7…d3 8.Ng5 as Black’s best option.
In the next game, however, you could argue that Garry’s resignation was premature. For one fleeting moment he’d actually been much better against Anish Giri, but after 31.a5? (31.g3!) 31…Rg8 32.Bf1 hxg2 he threw in the towel.
Objectively speaking, it seems White is lost, but 33.Bc4! was worth a try, since 33…Bxc4? 34.axb6! turns out to be no more than a draw. The only win for Black is to sacrifice the bishop with 33…Qh7! (or 33…Qh3) 34.Bxd5 Qh1+ 35.Kf2 Qh2!, but even there it might be worth playing on, since White is a rook up and Black could always blunder.
If one torture had been missing for Garry so far, it was the pain of spoiling a winning position, but he got to endure that against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the penultimate round of the day. Garry finally switched from the Najdorf to 2…e6, got to play an early g5, and Maxime admitted, “against Garry I got lost after 10 moves with White — that’s kind of embarrassing!”
The advantage grew to huge proportions, with the crucial moment perhaps coming after 19.Kh2.
There are countless tempting options for Black such as 19…f5! and 19…Ng4!, and they all win, though best was 19…a6! To avoid simply losing the piece, you have to play 20.Nd6+, but then just taking with the bishop is fine, while 20…Rxd6! 21.exd6 Qxd6+ is even better. Instead Garry played 19…Nf5!?, perhaps wanting to cover d6 as well as move a piece towards the white king, but 20.Ba3! by Maxime was the first hint that he would be able to survive the assault and fight on in an endgame.
Maxime later commented, “At least I’m glad that in this tournament my defensive skills are put to the test and I’m doing much better than in the past few months”, and a combination of defensive resourcefulness and time pressure weighing on Garry saw Maxime manage to equalise.
From then on it felt like no surprise when Maxime actually broke through to win. Putting the rook behind the passed pawn with 44…Rg3 would have been sufficient to hold, but Garry’s 44…Re2? was the losing move.
Maxime blitzed out 45.g4!, when after 45…hxg4 46.g7 the pawn can’t be stopped. Garry played 45…Rg2, but after 46.gxh5 White’s connected passed pawns are also unstoppable. That was the most bitter game yet.
It only left one round to go, but unfortunately for Garry that was against the tournament’s top performer, Ian Nepomniachtchi. A near novelty from Nepo on move 7, g5 next move, and Garry was once again on the ropes with the white pieces. He was losing in 12 moves, with the end coming on move 18.
18…c5! brought resignation, since the bishop and queen battery is stopped in its tracks and, with White’s kingside in ruins, only a blunder could have saved Garry (e.g. 19.Qb2 Qxg2?? 20.Bb5+! and White wins). The 13th World Champion had seen enough.
Nepo commented on Garry’s day:
It’s completely unnecessary to score like this, but in general I really hope he’ll do much better tomorrow, because in general the level of his play is high enough, if we exclude these two or three opening catastrophes. In general, I think it really affects your morale and you become upset, tilted and so on, and you can’t play, let’s say, at full steam. You’re affected by emotions and I hope tomorrow he’ll do much better… I’m rooting more for Garry than for myself`!
MVL echoed those sentiments:
It’s so difficult — you come in, you’re not prepared to play rated games against guys who are hungry, who want it all. He’s a bit rusty, of course, he played very slowly, so that didn’t help, because of course according to his standards he should do much better, but on a day of tilt in blitz you know this can happen to basically everyone.
Magnus Carlsen, who was playing the San Fermin Masters from Pamplona, Spain, was asked for his view after winning his quarterfinal match against Eduardo Iturrizaga.
The first comment was of course at least half a joke:
Being old is tough! But I think it's just a case of everything going wrong in one day, so I cannot see it happening again. I really hope that he will play some good games tomorrow!
Elsewhere the battle for first place was extremely tight, with Jorden van Foreest the only player other than Kasparov to have a very bad day, while Mamedyarov was the only other player to score less than 50%.
Ian Nepomniachtchi started the day with a one-point lead, but had been caught by Anish Giri after Round 2. The Dutch no. 1’s Round 1 win against Vishy Anand featured perhaps the move of the day.
37.Bf4!! threatens mate-in-1 with Rg6. After 37…exf4 38.Qxf4! there’s no defence against Qxh4+ and again Rg6 mate. The game ended 38…Qxf2 39.Rg6+ and Vishy resigned, since 39…Kh5 40.Bd1+! is mate-in-3. A blunder by MVL in the next game saw Anish catch Nepo, and in fact the Dutch no. 1 was the only player other than Nepo who managed to take the sole lead at any point of the day.
That wasn’t his only trick…
It gives a better impression of the day, however, to note that at one point we had four co-leaders, with Nepo and Giri joined by Duda and MVL. Maxime was the day’s top scorer, with the most important game his take-down of the leader.
Nepo had “trapped” Maxime’s rook…
…but was hit by: 23.Rxf6! gxf6 24.d6! Bd8 25.d7! (25.Nxe5!? would allow 25…Qe8 to put up some resistance) 25…R8c6.
26.Nxe5!, hitting the queen on b5 and threatening mate-in-2 with Qxf7+. After 26...fxe5 27.Bxb5 the game didn’t last much longer.
After that, however, Nepomniachtchi struck back to win four of the next five games, with his victory over Kasparov in the final round taking him back into the sole lead, though only by half a point.
It’s not quite a two-horse race, though Giri, and especially Anand and Duda 2.5 points back, have a lot of work to do on the final day if they’re going to fight for 1st place. Let’s hope Garry has drawn some conclusions and can come back stronger on the final day of the event!
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